Keeping Kids Healthy Advice
Most children put non-food items in their mouths at some point. For example, a child may put dirt from a sandbox in his or her mouth. This is a normal exploration of their environment. However, some children may develop pica, an eating disorder characterized by persistent and compulsive cravings to eat items other than food. The word “pica” comes from the Latin word for magpie, a bird known to eat almost anything.
Pica is most common in children with developmental disabilities, such as autism, mental retardation, and in children between 2 and 3 years old. Children with pica may crave and eat nonfood items such as dirt, clay, paint chips, plaster, chalk, cornstarch, baking soda, coffee grounds, cigarette ashes, cigarette butts, feces, glue, hair, buttons, paper, sand, toothpaste and soap. Some of these items may seem harmless, but pica is considered a serious eating disorder and can lead to health problems such as worm or parasite infestions, lead poisoning, intestinal obstruction and iron-deficiency anemia.
Some signs that indicate pica include repetitive consumption of nonfood items for a period of one month or longer and the child is older than 18 to 24 months. The causes of pica are unknown, but some situations that increase the risk of pica include:
Parental neglect, lack of supervision, or food deprivation
Mental health conditions
If you suspect your child may have pica, talk to your pediatrician, who may test your child for iron and/or zinc deficiencies, as well as lead poisoning. Iron is used by the body to make hemoglobin (the red part of your blood that carries oxygen throughout the body), by the nervous system for growth, and to fight infections. Foods that contain iron include meat, eggs, grains, cereal, dried fruits (apricots, prunes, and raisins), green leafy vegetables (such as spinach, greens, and broccoli) and legumes (beans and nuts). Zinc is used by the body for growth, vision, taste, smell, and to help wounds heal and fight infections. It is found in meat, seafood, eggs and dairy products.
Your doctor will also educate you on how to manage and prevent pica-related behavior, by suggesting ways to teach your child about acceptable and unacceptable food items. If your child’s iron and zinc levels are normal, your doctor may suggest a child psychologist for behavioral therapy.
Pica is normally a temporary condition that improves as your child gets older, but it may be more difficult to control pic in children with developmental or mental health issues.
If your child’s pica behavior does not improve after several weeks after treatment, call your pediatrician. Being patient with your child is important in treating pica – remember to praise your child when you notice that he or she has not been eating nonfood items.